When my husband and I visited Costa Rica last year for the first time, on a lark, we decided to learn to surf. Based on all the reviews that we read on TripAdvisor, we decided on Surf Simply. I know that I’ve waxed poetically about Surf Simply before and called it the best surf camp ever. I’ve discussed the simplicity of their coaching style and the joy of riding my first unbroken wave. But what I really love about it is its philosophy of surf coaching.
Ru Hill, the owner of Surf Simply and originally from Bristol, England, could have easily set up the typical surf school when he moved to Costa Rica in 2007. But he didn’t. He wanted to do something different.
I’m not sure Ru realizes this but he helped me through one of my first intimidating surfing experiences. It was my first time ever out-the-back (beyond the point where the waves break) and a set started coming in. I saw that the waves were going to start breaking before they reached me or on my head. I was alone in the water as I was the last of my group to try to catch an unbroken wave. I paddled out and turtle rolled. When I came back up, I got on my board and thought I was going to die. Then, I saw Ru paddling out to me. All I could think was, “Thank GOD.” I think Ru said to me, “That wave wasn’t big enough for you?”
I’m beyond excited to share an interview with Ru. He’s one of the nicest, most patient people I’ve ever met and pure surf nerd/genius.
What prompted you set up shop as a surf coaching resort? Was it something that had always been in your plans or was there a specific experience or experiences that revealed the need for such a resort?
When I got into teaching surfing 15 years ago, I became really aware that there were beginner lessons available, which were all about catching waves and standing up, then there was coaching being done with competitive surfers but there was nothing in between. I was involved in both and the gap became very apparent. I didn’t jump into it because it was a hole in the market, although it certainly was, but more because it’s a lot more fun teaching people how to surf correctly (i.e. creating speed by putting the board in a more powerful part of the wave) than just teaching people to stand up or only working with pros.
What’s your philosophy behind surf coaching?
There’s a lot of ways to answer that but I think that the mantra that I try to instill in all the Surf Simply coaches sums it up fairly well: We are not teaching people how to surf, we are teaching them how to teach themselves how to surf.
What’s your favorite part of coaching?
I love introducing people to surfing but my favorite part is coaching people who have surfed their whole lives because surfing is already really important to them and when you can give them the tools to progress, they get such a kick out of it and that feels good.
I know that you all just returned from an incredible trip to Indonesia and are prepping to head back to France for three weeks to coach there. Are there plans to take Surf Simply on the road to other places?
The Surf Simply team is a pretty entrepreneurial bunch so we are always running these satellite projects. One member of the team will want to run a week or more of coaching in South Africa or Peru and then they take charge of it. I partner them and act as mentor and, of course, I get to be there with them too. So the satellite projects that we have coming up in 2012/13 are down to the imagination of the team here in Costa Rica. We’ll certainly be back to Indo and France each year but we may add Portugal and a few weekend clinics in the UK and in the States. You’ll have to stay connected to our blog or Facebook page.
What are the key skills that a novice surfer needs to master? What are common mistakes that new surfers make?
Wow, that’s quite a question! So that we’re not here all night, I’ll answer a slightly different question. Then two things that hold most people back are:
1) Paddle fitness. If you’re a surfer you need to be either surfing three times a week or swimming (freestyle laps) three times per week. It’s baffling to me why people associate surfing more with playing the guitar than they do with swim training.
2) Being aware of where your feet are. 99% of wipe outs happen because your feet are in the wrong place. Feet sideways and on the center, at least double shoulder width apart, with your knees in together and you leading hand outside your heel rail. Cruising around on a longboard (skateboard) in this stance is going to leapfrog you forwards, especially if you can get comfortable moving your feet around while the skateboard is in motion.
As someone who started surfing later in life, do you have any advice for folks like me? What kind of goals should we be setting for ourselves?
The better you get at surfing, the more fun it is. But more specifically, the better you get at surfing, the wider range of conditions you can have fun in. There’s no limit to how good you can get. My friend Lulu started surfing at 48 and started riding a short board at 61. Now she surfs everyday and just completed her lifeguard certification. This fall, she’s gonna be 65 and I’ll be 35 so in November we’re going to go on our ‘Century Surf Trip’ to Nicaragua.
There’s a lot of things that you can do to get better quickly and efficiently. Coming for a week of coaching at Surf Simply is of course one of them and there are a lot of milestones to aim for that’s why the big tree of surf skills poster is such an important teaching tool.
If I was going to pick out one thing, I would say that when you start focusing on turns, rather than length of ride, that’s when you’ll really start progressing quickly.
In New York City, we have inconsistent surf that’s often small, choppy and breaks close to shore. Do you have any advice for surfing (or learning to surf) in these types of conditions?
If you focus on turns (instead of length of ride), then a four meter long ride becomes a perfect opportunity to try the biggest change of direction that you can without risking wasting a potentially long ride. White water climbs/floaters are of course the next big step so then a close-out section becomes an opportunity to speed, instead of be the end of the ride.
As surfing has become more popular, what changes have you seen in surf culture? The line-up?
I think more people are viewing it as a sport rather than a lifestyle. I think that’s a much healthier and more productive approach. Like I said before, swim training has everything to do with surfing and trying to emulate an artificial counter-culture surf stereotype has nothing to do with riding waves. Making new friends and hanging out on the beach is all great fun but that happens on its own if you spend time surfing. I love seeing my friends who are lawyers, doctors or tech industry guys pull up at the beach because there’s nothing about them that would indicate that they are a surfer until you see them in the sea blowing up. Then they quietly walk back to their. I think that’s cool.
There’s also a lot more girls out there these days which makes it all a lot less macho in the water. Speaking of which, I also like that localism is now a thing of the past among high level surfers. They’ve all traveled and been the outsider themselves. The whole localism thing is very childish and 1980s. You should respect everyone in and out of the water regardless of where they’re from. That shouldn’t even need to be said. It’s nice that now-a-days agro locals are a small minority.
What are some of your favorite surf spots around the world? Any recommendations for good places for new surfers or easy reef breaks?
Well for Level 1 – 3 surfers, you don’t get much better than Nosara simply because there are always waves here. You can go to the best surf spot in the world but if it’s flat, it’s flat. That’s what makes where we are so special. Having said that, I went to Maccaronis in Indonesia recently and that was amazing. I think I spent more time inside the tube over those two weeks than the whole rest of my life put together. The Mentawai Islands in are incredible but, as a rule of thumb, you need to be able to catch waves on a board which is small enough that you can also duck dive it, in order to go there.
What’s one piece of advice that has stuck with you through the years?
A good friend of mine, who now actually works at Facebook, told me to always make any important decision based on data rather than how I feel about it at the time. Solid gold. It’s true in business, in life and in surf coaching especially. Video coaching is all about gathering good data so that you can make better informed decisions about what problems are happening in someones performance.
With the Olympics having just wrapped up, do you think that surfing should be an Olympic sport?
I have to say no. I think that if Olympic gold is meant to represent the highest accolade in the sport then that’s not going to be the case with surfing as most Olympic venues simply aren’t going to be able to offer the kind of waves needed for that to happen. Maybe one day we’ll have a wave pool that can serve up waves like Pipe or Teahupoo but we’re not there yet.
Thank you Ru so much for sharing all this great information with us!! I always learn so much from you.